Power to the people: off-grid solar continues its meteoric rise

Over one billion people globally do not have access to electricity. Of those, 600 million reside in Africa. Just as the continent leapfrogged the landline telephone in favour of the mobile, it may also leapfrog centralized fossil fuel powered grids, moving straight to small-scale, off-grid and mini-grid renewable energy. 100 million people already have off-grid solar products in Africa, and D-light alone has reached over 80 million people globally. We traveled to Kenya to find out what is driving this growth and what the future might hold.

In the small town of Joska, approximately 40km East of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, we meet Lucie. A widow, she lives alone in her small house, surrounded by a rich array of healthy looking vegetables she works the dark soil to produce. Lucie has the wide-eyed humour of a woman growing old gracefully. As we talk with her, she disappears into her home and produces a small mobile solar light, placing it in the sun to charge. We crouch down, sensing a photo opportunity, but our D-Light host Geoffrey, laughing, snaps up the light in his hands. Lucia’s face betrays a childish grin and twinkling eye: the product was made by a D-Light competitor, placed there deliberately as a mischievous joke. We all laugh heartily.

Lucie’s children are grown up and have moved away, but her D-Light home solar system helps her to keep connected to the outside world. The system includes a variety of lights, phone and device charging ports, a radio, and television. D-Light sold 120,000 of these in the first 6 months after its launch in October 2016. Lucie tells us: “I like to watch the news, and the gospel music shows. I don’t care for the other rubbish!”

Solar power charges devices tv radio (Eco MoJo)

The D-Light home solar system powers lights, phones, radios, and televisions. Here Lucie enjoys watching tv powered by her D-light solar system. Photo copyright: Eco MoJo.

 

D-Light was anointed the African winner of the $1.5m Zayed Future Energy Prize in 2013, 6 years into its operations. A global firm with a growing African market, its customers have the option to pay products in daily, weekly or monthly installments. A non-payment means the system shuts down: an incentive to keep up the payment schedule. Back in Joska at the local market, we stop to join a crowd of curious onlookers peering over each other’s shoulders to witness a man conducting a strange looking experiment using an egg and a burning cigarette, apparently demonstrating the health risks of lighting up. The market is busy all day and night; traders continue until 22.00 or 23.00. As the sun sets and the lights come on, we notice how many businesses here use D-Light products. Market vegetable traders with off-grid solar kits attract more customers to their stalls as darkness falls, boosting their business income. As we stop to talk to one of them, an impromptu sale begins, as an interested passer-by quizzes our D-light sales hosts on the benefits of the home solar system. “He is very interested; we’ll contact him on Monday for a home demonstration. So many people want one of these,” Geoffrey, the area sales representative, enthusiastically conveys to us.

solar lights up night market kenya (Eco MoJo)

These solar lights enable traders to sell their produce in markets at night. Photo copyright: Eco MoJo.

 

The impacts of these small-scale products on people’s lives are clear: solar electricity is safer, cleaner, healthier and more affordable than alternatives such as kerosene, enabling people to stay connected, study, and boost their businesses. Many of Geoffrey’s customers are even connected to the grid and elect to purchase off-grid solar products anyway: citing as their motivation the unreliability of grid electricity with its unpredictable blackouts. Geoffrey moved to D-Light after 5 years selling fast-moving consumer goods. It’s a move he doesn’t regret: “I love seeing people who have lived in darkness, live in light. That becomes my fulfillment.”

D-Light Kenya solar (Eco MoJo)

Geoffrey, a D-Light representative, makes a sale in the busy market of Joska, 40km East of Nairobi. Photo copyright: Eco MoJo.

 

The solar revolution is not being driven by government aid, but by the private sector. These products are profitable, not handouts; the people we spoke to clients, not beneficiaries. The profitability of renewable energy means both grid and off-grid renewables could become Africa’s big leapfrog of the twenty first century. Not only are the costs of renewables falling faster every year, but the costs of grid connection remain extremely high. According to the Africa Progress Panel, spearheaded by ex-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, connecting everyone in Africa to a centralized electricity grid would cost $63 billion per year until 2030. Right now, expenditure is about $8 billion. If the argument is effectively made that off-grid solar can deliver higher levels of electrification for a cheaper cost, governments may even start subsidising the off-grid revolution to drive its growth further.

So what’s next? D-Light estimates that penetration of off-grid solar products in Africa is about the same as the mobile telephone in the 1990’s, just before the mobile phone really took off. The Economist estimates that installations across the continent are doubling about every 18 months. If trends continue, Africa’s economies could build on this early success to become leading low-carbon, tech-enabled competitors of the 21 st century.

D-Light Kenya Country Director Sai Kumar says the big focus now is on technology innovation that can deliver higher energy systems that can meet the needs of the customer. Sai adds “We envision a future where all people are empowered to enjoy the freedom and improved quality of life that comes with access to reliable, affordable off-grid light and power.”

Reporting, photo & video content by Steven Bland and Russell Galt of Eco MoJo: Sustainability Simplified. To contact them, email info@ecomojo.biz

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